Boston Strangler is Matt Ruskin’s dramatisation of the most notorious serial killer to ever strike in the Bay State capital. In the early 1960s, thirteen women were strangled in Boston in a similar manner, and a botched police investigation placed the burden of discovery on Boston Globe reporters Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole, played here by Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon, with supporting roles from Chris Cooper as editor Jack MacLaine, and Alessandro Nivola as Detective Conley, the officer in charge of the case. In combination with cinematographer Ben Kutchins, Ruskin shrouds the film in a gloomy, moody and murky palette, full of darkness and dankness that often recalls the look and feel of Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. During an early strangulation scene, the camera remains focused on a dripping tap, while the killer often pretends to be a plumber or electrician, explaining his presence in terms of the desuetude of the buildings where his crimes typically took place. This palette enhances the brutality of the murders, and draws on the graininess of the subsequent crime scene photos.
More specifically, this moody lens, which is the defining feature of the film, evokes a world that was still in transition from the late noir era to the golden age of the serial killer. Boston Strangler feels heavily indebted to films, like Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps, that tried to parse how the serial killer, once a freakish anomaly, was emerging as an almost inevitable consequence of a decentralising American urban environment. In Ruskin’s film, this imbues the nocturnal city with a powerful eeriness and emptiness that gradually coalesces around the oppressive prescience of a serial killer, out there, somewhere, waiting and watching for the next opportunity to strike. At times, the killer also seems to be hovering over the city, embodied, like a dark angel, as in the sweeping aerial shot over a church that precedes one of the most graphic murder scenes. While this omniscience soon converges the killer with the cityscape, and ensures that daylight is never completely free from the dread of night, the forensic vocabulary hasn’t caught up with it yet, leading the police officers, and initially the reporters themselves, to query: “Why would anyone go about killing three nobody women?”
No surprise, then, that the killer is initially known as the Phantom, in reference to his stealth, his surveillance and above all, his silence, since Boston Strangler captures the 60s as a time when the peculiarly phantasmatic horror of silent cinema was still within living memory. For all that this period piece, like others of its ilk, might play as a myth of origins for our present, and as a critical moment in the evolution of serial killer discourse, it also offers us a version of the 60s that is itself haunted by the world as it existed half a century before, or even earlier. At times, the Phantom seems to command the city with the same occult networked presence as a Dr. Mabuse, or an Irma Vep, while Boston itself often feels Victorian, an Atkinson Grimshaw painting brought to life, full of cobbled laneways and luminous streetlamps. After all, the only really iconic serial killer at this point in time was Jack the Ripper, a point of reference that drags the film back into the late nineteenth-century, much as the reporters’ relationships split the Carrie Coon-Morgan Spector marriage at the heart of The Gilded Age.
However, the deepest recesses of this visual dankness mirror a case that still remains somewhat open – a case that has never quite been closed, and so never gone totally cold. While Albert DeSalvo, a veteran played by David Dastmalchian, is formally charged with the crimes, his involvement in all of them remains questioned to this day. Admittedly, his DNA was linked to the final case, and he confessed at one point to all thirteen murders, but the reporters quickly discovered that this confession might have been fabricated with the assistance of Daniel Marsh, another prime suspect, played by Ryan Winkles, when the two were housed together at Bridgewater State Hospital, all with the tacit encouragement of a young F. Lee Bailey, played by Luke Kirby. The case therefore doesn’t possess the stark gradations of either a solved or unsolved crime, and has entered a twilight state in the popular consciousness, just as the majority of victims are older women, living in their twilight years.
Over the course of the film, then, the Boston Strangler case bleeds back into a broader matrix of violence against women that darkens and dankens the palette of the film even further. In the process, the crimes become an allegory for the early sexual liberation era, marking a recent resurgence of interest in the rearguard to liberation, presumably as a way of making sense of the enormous backlash that has occurred in response to the trans, non-binary and genderqueer liberation of our present moment. In Ti West’s X, for example, we see a seventy-something couple take out their rage at missing out on sexual liberation by murdering a group of young adults who spend a weekend camping out on their farmland. Similarly, Jarett Kobek’s groundbreaking Motor Spirit and How to Find Zodiac dispenses with all previous wisdom about the Zodiac killer by framing him as a square desperate to be a freak, and attributing his crimes to this same rage at missing out on the boons of the counterculture. By exclusively targeting older women (at least at first), the Boston Strangler seeks to preserve them forever in the consciousness of the city, as members of the last generation of women who were prepared to resign themselves to being ornaments for the male gaze. The ornamental quality of his strangulation, in which each victim is “posed with a bizarre sense of ceremony, a decorative garotte around her neck” becomes a critical forensic feature of the crimes, while a later, younger victim turns out to have been the voice for the prototype of a new talking doll, suggesting the Strangler can only process the next generation as a series of infantile toys.
Conversely, Loretta and Jean, the two reporters, are the vanguard of sexual liberation. Jean has worked her way up to a regular beat, and Loretta is trying to break away from the lifestyle desk, in a Gothic forerunner to Mary Tyler Moore. Both of their ambitions take a toll on their marriages too – Jean’s husband is an alcoholic, while Loretta’s husband, who she would eventually divorce, is ostensibly supportive, but grows distant and hostile when she starts to treat her profession as more than a passing fancy. He first expresses his frustration when she has to leave abruptly for work on New Year’s Eve without driving her mother home, and soon takes a promotion that necessitates her staying at home, but without discussing it with her first. Meanwhile, the Boston Strangler starts to move away from older women towards the demographic of the reporters themselves. First, he escalates to younger women, and then he moves to a younger pregnant single professional woman, whose mother reflects that she always expected her to end up just like Loretta – living on her own terms, pursuing a successful career, and refusing to conform to the expectations placed on the previous generation of women. It’s only a matter of time, then, before the killer starts to contact the reporters directly, crank calling Loretta right when he pivots to younger victims, and then shoving a scribbled out image of her and Jean’s newspaper photographs through her mailbox when she’s home alone with her kids in the middle of the night – photographs that the reporters resisted, partly because they were a publicity stunt that their male colleagues didn’t have to perform, but also because they fear they would breed precisely this kind of attention.
This scene suddenly morphs the film’s nexus of late noir and emergent serial killer modes into a flash forward to fully-formed suburban horror. It’s the moment when the Strangler stops being a single killer, and turns into the signifier and banner that all the women in the film live under. Loretta starts to suspect that these more recent crimes, which exhibit such a sharp shift in modus operandi, don’t belong to the original Strangler at all, but instead reflect an entire ambience of misogynists who are using the details of his crime as cover for their own murderous impulses – a generation of men, in other words, who have started to learn the vocabulary of serial killing as a response to the anxieties and fears of sexual liberation. The dankness and dimness now resolves into its final form as a misogynistic temporality, a looming dread of the nocturnal time, or blank time, or empty time, under which crimes against women occur – a time that is even more terrifying in that it seems capable of hiding in plain time, against the most quotidian routines of the city, in a late spin on The Naked City: “Every day is a eternity, every night is a horror…Nobody knows what a woman alone feels.”
For the reporters, this means that the more they try to combat the Strangler through the media, the more identified he becomes with the way in which the city mediates itslf, and the more powerfully he proffers serial killing as a medium through which a new generation of misogynists can manifest themselves. On the one hand, this means that Loretta and Jean are blamed for conducting a trial by media, despite the fact that the police force don’t appear to have made a serious effort to investigate all the leads. But it also means that a whole range of media texts quickly spins out from the case, with Bailey encouraging DeSalvo to make the confession in order to secure a lucrative tell-all book deal, and Detective Conley endorsing the process so that he can become the chief consultant on an early film adaptation of the case. At the deepest core of the film’s strangled palette, then, is its prescience of the true crime media machine that this still-sort-of-unsolved case generated, producing a third act that becomes more sprawling, metonymic and peripatetic as it proceeds, bleeding imperceptibly into the present tense, while haunting it with the residues of an arcane past.